Monday, February 15, 2010

On markets and meritocracy

Bryan Caplan has some harsh words for a Shikha Dalmia piece in Forbes titled "The Fable of Market Meritocracy." I made some of the same points in a post about whether young libertarians should go to law school, so it should be no surprise to anyone that I agree with Dalmia.

Caplan's right, of course, that markets generally do a better job rewarding merit than other systems. Still, I fear he underestimates how off-putting this stuff about markets and meritocracy can be to people who otherwise have some sympathies to libertarian ideas. I can tell plenty of anecdotes from my own experience, but here's a great data point: Ed Kilgore's essay on the crackup of the never very strong liberaltarian alliance. Kilgore concedes some tactical value for his fellow liberals in making alliances with libertarians. He even admits to liking some libertarians like David Boaz personally. But Kilgore can't quite bring himself to embrace a permanent alliance in large part because he's squicked out by "Nietzschean disdain for the poor and minorities" -- i.e. by libertarians' uncritical embrace of the idea that markets promote merit.

Like Arnold Kling, I agree that some of Kilgore's rhetoric about the libertarian movement's secret crypto-racist tendencies is silly. But unlike Kling, I don't want to write off people like this altogether. Even less than perfect liberal allies can be valuable. And at least some of the burden ought to be on us to try to keep them happy. Making an effort to step away from meritocracy-based defenses of markets is a worthwhile start.


  1. Kilgore said nothing about "liking" any libertarian "personally." Did you read his piece?

  2. I acknowledge reading the TNR piece on Friday and only getting around to writing something about it late on Sunday. That led me to misremember a specific quote involving Boaz. I've also talked about this piece with a couple libertarian friends -- it's possible that one of them mentioned offline that Kilgore and Boaz were close, and that's what threw me.

    Still, I do think the broader point that Kilgore likes some libertarians socially is true. He mentions co-existing on panels with libertarians, going out to lunch and drinks with these people, and otherwise co-existing socially and professionally with us. He also makes a reference to "nice" Cato foundation colleagues. None of these comments are the sorts of things one says about people whom one doesn't like personally. In light of that, your comment about my not having read the piece does come off as a little harsh. I don't get overly exercised about this sort of thing, but please be advised that others might -- especially from an anonymous commenter.